ipei brains

Third graders in Taura McMeekin's Enfield Elementary School class this year have been learning to grow healthy brains through a cross-disciplinary curriculum designed to teach critical thinking, improve decision-making, and encourage mindfulness.

Through the "Big Beautiful Brains!" program, students have explored topics such as the "seeking" and "avoiding" nature of the brain's limbic system, the amygdala role in "fight, flight, and freeze" reactions, and the hippocampus as the personal memory center of the brain.

With the help of an Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI) Red and Gold Grant, McMeekin and her students will create a neurobiology hands-on science kit so the program can continue for future classes. The kit will provide students with a foundation for understanding the brain's role as the director of thoughts, emotions and behaviors while also introducing students to the other systems of the body

"The goal is for students to gain deeper understanding that the brain is a complex decision-making organ, with multiple drives and impulses competing for control of our attention and actions," expressed McMeekin. "Helping students learn how to be more aware of the connections between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors as they relate to decision-making is a foundation and life-long skill worth developing," she said.

The students participated in several hands-on activities as part of the program. For example, Cornell University neuroscience students visited McMeekin's class three times through a program called "Squishy Brains & Beastly Behaviors". The third graders were able to view a human brain in a jar and touch different parts of a sheep's brain to see how a brain is put together. They also dissected cow eyeballs to better understand how the brain controls sensory systems.

In collaboration with the Enfield Elementary art teacher, students painted self-portraits exhibiting that their brains are divided into halves and that while they use both sides of the brain, each human has a dominant side that makes up for a huge part of one's personality. "An accurate understanding of the left and right brain can help students to become more productive, efficient and creative," McMeekin said. Their oil pastels are displayed at the CTB at East Hill Plaza.

Other activities have included yoga and meditation as means to release excessive stress as well as lessons on healthy food choices. Students have also learned to take "brain breaks" (moving their bodies) in between the learning activities and group discussions. In addition, they have studied and practiced what it means to have a "growth" mindset versus a "fixed" mindset.

"My hope is that students will apply this new growth set knowledge about their brains to any obstacle that may present itself to them academically, socially, emotionally and/or physically," McMeekin said.